If I were in Singapore, or the Philippines, the answer would most definitely be no, but the US and other Western countries are gripped by paranoia and fear. Every man is a potential molester, deviant or criminal. Every woman, on the other hand, is safe. Or at least that’s the common belief, despite the fact that there are documented cases of female murderers and molesters.
Earlier today, I was checking Facebook and a relative had posted a link to a Wall Street Journal Article called “Eek! A Male! Treating all men as potential predators doesn’t make our kids safer.” It’s a good article, and one part of it in particular caught my attention.
In England in 2006, BBC News reported the story of a bricklayer who spotted a toddler at the side of the road. As he later testified at a hearing, he didn’t stop to help for fear he’d be accused of trying to abduct her. You know: A man driving around with a little girl in his car? She ended up at a pond and drowned.
At first I was shocked by the guy’s behavior, but after I thought about it a bit, I realized that I don’t really blame him. From the time kids are old enough to talk and understand what they’re being told, they’re told to be wary of strangers, and especially so of strange men. The idea that every man is a prospective child molester is embedded in the national consciousness. We grow up with it the same way we grow up knowing that cereal is a breakfast food. Not that it’s a good thing, but that’s just how it is.
If this guy had been found with the girl in his car, it could have gone badly for him even though he hadn’t done anything. They might have suspected him of being involved in the girl’s disappearance somehow, or at the least have questioned him and landed his name in a police database somewhere. Or, the girl could have decided that she wanted to tell a fun story, partially prompted by the questions the police would invariably ask her, not realizing the consequences, but having heard it on television and having decided it would be exciting. Maybe the guy would have been arrested and tried for something he never even did, all because he stopped to lend a helping hand to a lost kid. Maybe he even would have found himself being jailed over it.
Ridiculous? Well, is it really? How many times do you hear in the news that someone was found to have been innocent of a crime they were convicted of decades ago, and that they’d spent most of their life rotting in prison as an innocent man? Juries aren’t selected based on who’s the smartest. The prosecutor and defender fight to keep people on the jury that are biased in their favor.
So, it all comes down to a question of self preservation. What’s more important? That random kid, or your well being, and if you’re a family man, the well being of your family? If you wind up smeared and/or in jail over accusations of something like child molestation or abduction, it’ll have a lot of repercussions not just on yourself, but on your family as well.
Even if none of that happened, what if the kid twisted his or her ankle, or cut his or her finger while in your care? Everyone’s looking to make a quick buck these days with a lawsuit. If a woman can win a lawsuit for spilling hot coffee on herself and getting burned, and a criminal can win a lawsuit for hurting himself on a knife in the house he broke into, do you really think parents who let their kid wander on the side of a road might not sue you for a twisted ankle or other accidental injury?
And, beyond that, what if it were all a trick to get someone to stop and get out of their vehicle? Something like a kid on the side of the road, looking helpless and in distress, would be particularly good bait to get women into a vulnerable, isolated situation.
My relative asked me if I could live with myself knowing that a kid had died because I didn’t stop to pick him or her up off the side of the road, and the answer is yes, I could. It wouldn’t be a very pleasant thought, but given how stupid and paranoid most people in the US are, and all of the things that could go wrong, I wouldn’t want to risk it. Like I said, if I were in Singapore or the Philippines, I wouldn’t worry about that sort of thing. Not as much anyway, and it certainly wouldn’t worry me enough to stop me from helping some lost kid. Here in the US? I don’t really know. I certainly wouldn’t stop. I wouldn’t let the kid in my car. The safest way would be to call the police from a payphone and then leave. Depending on the situation, I might stop a distance away and call it in on my mobile.
What would you do? Would you pick up a random kid off the street? Would you simply call it in and keep going? Would you call it in and hang around and wait for the police to show?
I was sitting on that same second floor window where I saw the girl with the bag that said “Use Me” when I saw something else interesting. Does this count as child exploitation? Isn’t there a law against it? Maybe there isn’t. It seems like labor regulation is pretty loose in the Philippines, which can apparently have both its ups and downs.
This reminds me of something else I saw, where children were encouraged to buy tokens for the toy machines in a grocery store at the tobacco counter.
In the Disney movie Aladdin, the idea of being a “street rat” was glorified as an honorable way of making a living, with a code of ethics and a comfortable life. In reality, things don’t work out quite that way. I’ve seen poor people on the street here in the Philippines and they don’t look like they’re having quite as good a time as Aladdin was. They’re dirty, they’re hungry and they live in a way that’s dangerous because at any moment of the night someone could take their lives. It’s not that adventurous when you think about it. It’s a torment that must be a horrible way to live. Even at my worst, I’ve always had a roof over my head and a little something to eat every day. So, I have pity for these people when I see them in the street.
In the Philippines, and perhaps everywhere, that pity has to be tempered by wariness about the real nature of the person holding the cup or the annoying children that flock around me like little vultures. Here in the Philippines there are organized begging rackets where beggars are put out on corners like a pimp would set out prostitutes in other parts of the world. The individuals doing the begging are made to look more forlorn than they may actually be, and some of them may have homes that they go home to in the evening. Most people probably learned about this activity by watching the movie Slumdog Millionaire. The same practices you see in that film are employed in the Philippines. So, you can’t be too free with your money when you see these types of people coming up to you in the road, or holding a cup out to you in front of a store.
The ones that really annoy me are the groups of kids that try to surround you and start asking for money. They even go so far as to start grabbing at your clothing. My guess is that this is to distract you while their friends start fishing in your pockets for whatever they can grab and run with. When I first visited the Philippines in 2008 I had a lot of patience for this sort of behavior, to the point that it annoyed my wife. She always shooed them away as fast as possible. I didn’t really care. My attitude about it has changed now though. I suppose that when you visit a place, those minor inconveniences seem quaint and entertaining, but when you actually move to that place and you know it’s something you’ll have to deal with on a repeating basis, the patience you had before wears thin quickly. Now, when these kids surround me and start asking for money I give them a very gruff, ‘”No!” and keep walking. If they persist, or start grabbing at my clothing, I push them away physically and tell them to “Fuck off”. That message normally gets through to them and they break off their pursuit, often accompanied by a string of expletives in Tagalog, the local language. I suppose that they think that just by being white, I must have tons of cash and I’m just holding out on them.
If you think that’s a little rough, given that these are kids, keep in mind that it’s typically organized. They do it every day. They beg as a job, rather than out of necessity, and I’d rather come across as a jackass than have my belongings stolen from my pockets while trying to play nice. Life in the Philippines isn’t just hard because the money is worth less, it’s hard because you have to be hard to survive when you’re out of the house. No one has bottomless pockets and every peso counts.
If you haven’t been through Singapore’s Budget Terminal lately there’s a table set up for kids to play. It’s one of those tables where you lay a piece of paper over an image made from raised edges. You scribble a crayon (or pencil) across it and the picture carries over.
It’s a lot of fun! The table was drawing a mixed crowd and when I walked up to it, it was composed of mostly adult tourists trying to get one last souvenir before getting on their flight.
Some of the designs are really interesting too. Here’s the one I made: